27 January 2018

My Name is Linda and I am a HOARDER

This image does *not* do justice to my office
I am currently culling my office. With two four-drawer filing cabinets, three desk spaces and two decent sized shelving units, anyone would think I’d have enough space in my room to spread. And so I have. And so I did. Until I could hardly get in to hoover.

Did I really start my writing career with a tinny portable typewriter and a cardboard box into which went everything: dictionary, thesaurus, paper, pens, notebook, and the typewriter? I wrote on the kitchen table during evenings when my youngster was in bed and my husband on shift. It worked. I learned my trade, and I started by selling short fiction to women’s magazines.

So how did it escalate to spread onto the landing? Into the dining room? Slowly.

Writing magazines, to which I ended up contributing, gave way to writers’ manuals. My move into historical fiction ensured I became a second-hand shop rummager, for it was amazing the non-fiction books that could be found therein. Brochures and guides were purchased when we visited historical sites; all kept just in case.

And then, of course, came the “paperless office” - that gross misstatement which ensured there was more paper than ever floating about. A good job, too, as it turned out. If all my early typescripts had been consigned to five-inch floppy diskettes where would I be now? (Yes, such things did exist, and they were truly floppy.) Even the three-inch have gone by the board, and have you tried using a CD with a modern laptop? Most are designed for streaming only.

Which brings me back to paper, because after the hacking of the server my email account was part of, do you really think I’d risk the only copy of my novels to the Cloud? But there comes a time when old accounts are no longer needed for tax purposes [pause for hollow laughter], and even I’m not interested in scrutinising hand-edited drafts of fiction.

So I guess I’d better keep plodding on. A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, as the saying goes. Thank goodness, I say. Who’d want an empty mind?

But there are limits.

20 January 2018

Beware Must-Read Lists

There’s one in today’s paper. Ten Books Every Child Should Own. It caught my eye immediately, as it was supposed to. But did it catch my eye for the intended reason?

I’m wary, if not downright cynical, about any such list, further fuelled by the fact that the headline had transformed by the inside page into Ten Books Every Child Should Read, which doesn’t mean the same at all.

My schooldays were scarred by the annual reading list, a wall of A1 sheets blocked in a neat hand to give each book’s title diagonally along the top and each child’s name horizontally along the left-hand side. A line of empty squares stood ready to receive a coloured star. Horrors such as Tom Brown’s School Days still haunt me.

In my teens The Little Red Book by Mao Tse-Tung (as he was known at the time) was the rage among my contemporaries. No one mentioned the word famine, never mind the deaths, upward of 30 million people. If you hadn’t read the book you were an unenlightened no one. Thankfully, the only books I could afford were to aid my employment prospects; everything else was borrowed from the library, and mine didn’t stock that title. I still feel a twinge of guilt for those 30+ million when I recall the preening, long-nosed glances my lack of reading the book attracted.

Likewise, I’m sure Mein Kampf was on someone’s must-read list, as were (are) the writings of Stalin, Marx, and the host of other the-end-justifies-the-means exponents. And this is my point: anyone – anyone – who waves a must-read list under another’s nose is waving it for a reason. Better to identify the reason before contemplating the titles, or attempting to imply the non-reader socially inadequate.

Today’s vaunted list, Ten Books Every Child Should Own [Read], is being used to publicise a writer’s recently published novel. There y’go… cynic that I am. I only hope that the majority of readers of the column hold a similarly cautious view and don’t rush to force the list down the throats of their unsuspecting offspring. There’s no faster way to put a child off reading. 

13 January 2018

Priming The Creative Well

This past week we’ve been in need of a sewing machine. I own two: my own 1960s Singer electric and my Granny’s Singer hand-cranked complete with beautiful Sphinx decals. Neither work. I went on the Net in search of a modern replacement, read various reviews, and stalled. I wanted something that would continue to work for years and not cost me half a mortgage.

By accident I also came across a DIY “refurbish a vintage Singer” video. It led me to checking the serial number of my Granny’s machine, and discovering that it couldn’t have been my Granny’s, at least not hers from new. It isn’t the 1920s-30s model I’d always supposed, but a January-June 1908 Singer 27, complete with original “coffin” lid.

YouTube is a wonderful invention. Two half days and the machine has been cleaned, oiled, and the stitch tension balanced between the top thread and long-bobbin under-thread, and from sounding like a WW2 bomber with bits falling off it runs quieter than I recall my electric doing. It left me staggered at the workmanship which, in 1908, produced a machine that not only offered stitches of differing lengths able to be worked on material as thin as fine lace and thicker than gaberdine, but also a host of attachments that would make a modern sewing machine blush. And I, with no engineering experience, could bring it back into use with no more than a tiny screwdriver from a set gifted in a Christmas cracker and a small amount of machine oil.

So what has this to do with writing? Here’s a Tweet I use alongside the hashtag #WritingTip

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. Good writers see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any - Orson Scott Card

In 1908, between January and June, 250,000 of these machines were manufactured. It was the first batch of true mass production for Singer. That meant a factory, not a small outbuilding. It meant training people; it meant hand-assembly; it meant selling an expensive machine destined for use by a woman that would free her from laborious hand-stitching and give her the wherewithal to provide an income for herself and her family.

How many story ideas can you see in that? How many story ideas have you hurried past today?

6 January 2018

Writers need to be Readers

It’s been a quiet Christmastide at Acaster Alcoves: daily walks, some socialising, but lots and lots of  reading.

As far back as I can recall, Christmas reading has meant research reading, but this year it has meant reading for pleasure. Except, for a writer, there is no such thing. 

Can I recognise the author’s misdirections? Can I second-guess the character developments, the denouement? What is causing me to skim, to withdraw from the fiction’s reality? Is the tenor used suitable, the balance of dialogue to narrative, the cut between characters?

Reading, especially for pleasure, is always a teaching tool – if we keep our eyes on the ball and our minds on the bounce. For one, I learned that I prefer reading off the page to listening to a dramatised audiobook. But far, far more important, my reading emphasised that characters are everything.  No amount of celebrity puffs or won awards will enamour me to a novel whose characters are out of step with their professed careers, or refuse to see what is staring them - and the reader - in the face, or have insightful epiphanies on the flimsiest of detail.

Readers are people, so characters had better be people, too. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle accepted this pre-requisite, otherwise he would never have gone to such lengths to have his Sherlock Holmes explain how his deductions were based on fact which Watson, and readers, had failed to notice. Elementary, or what?